A refreshing, off-kilter sense of humor colors "The Carriers Are Waiting," a strikingly strange pic about a manic, obsessive father and the unfortunate family that has to put up with his every twisted whim.

A refreshing, off-kilter sense of humor colors “The Carriers Are Waiting,” a strikingly strange pic about a manic, obsessive father and the unfortunate family that has to put up with his every twisted whim. First-time feature helmer Benoit Mariage isn’t interested only in comedy, though: The laughs are interspersed with some remarkably poignant moments. Unusual film will likely generate strong critic-driven interest in Europe and, with a little luck, could take flight in select arthouse settings in North America.

The main character in the pic, Roger Closset (Benoit Poelvoorde), is by any definition a real creep, and it’s a tribute to both Mariage and his lead thesp that the pic works as well as it does; they make the near-abusive dad at least partly sympathetic. Still, Roger’s incessant badgering of his wife and kids begins to wear thin after the one-hour mark, and will try some viewers’ patience.

But despite Roger’s outbursts and his cavalier treatment of everyone around him, there’s a shred of decency in his personality that prevents him from being a one-dimensional ogre. First seen at the dinner table with his browbeaten family, Roger is feverishly scouring through a world-record book looking for a record he and his family can set.

He finally hits on the notion that his 15-year-old son, Michel (Jean-Francois Devigne), will take a serious shot at the door-opening record. Not all that surprisingly, the teenager is not thrilled with the idea that he’s going to have to open and close a door more than 40,000 times in 24 hours. If he succeeds, the family will nab a new car from the local shopkeepers’ association.

Roger brings in a trainer (Bouli Lanners) to prep his son for the big event, and there are numerous bizarre scenes in the backyard with Michel whipping back and forth through the test door they’ve set up.

Part of the reason Roger is determined to win the contest is that he’s less than thrilled by his day job as an ambulance-chasing reporter for the local newspaper, the Daily Hope. Picking up his scoops via police radio, he is constantly taking off on his motorbike — usually with his 8-year-old daughter, Luise (Morgane Simon), in tow — to do interviews and snap pics of everything from grisly car crashes to the aftermath of a freak hail storm. There is also a subplot (which inspired pic’s title) about neighbor Felix (Philippe Grand’Henry), a clueless type who happens to be a whiz at raising award-winning carrier pigeons.

Mariage brings a docu background to the material; one of the strengths of “Carriers” is its documentary-like attention to detail. Helmer carefully captures a wide variety of images, from carrier pigeons taking flight en masse to folks working at the town factory. Most of the story is seen through the expressive eyes of young Luise, who seems puzzled by the goings-on; that p.o.v. helps keep the pic cohesive.

Poelvoorde is wonderful as Roger, all manic energy, over-the-top enthusiasm and a curious kind of cold-heartedness. Most memorable in rest of cast is Simon, an arresting presence as the young daughter.

Austere black-and-white lensing by Philippe Guilbert creates evocative snapshots of this bleak part of rural Belgium. Music is used sparingly but to good effect, particularly in sequences featuring melodic guitar lines.

The Carriers Are Waiting

Belgian-French-Swiss

Production

A K-Star/RTBF/CAB Prods. production, with the participation of Canal Plus, the Centre National de la Cinematographie, the Centre du Cinema et de l'Audiovisuel de la Communaute Francaise de Belgique, Television Suisse Romande, l'Office Federal de la Culture and Eurimages. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Dominique Janne. Directed, written by Benoit Mariage.

Crew

Camera (B&W), Philippe Guilbert; editor, Philippe Bourgueil; music, Stephane Huguenin, Yves Sanna; art director, Chris Cornil; costumes, Anne Fournier; sound, Olivier Hespel; associate producers, Arlette Zylberberg, Jean-Louis Porchet; assistant director, Boris Van Gils. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 14, 1999. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Roger - Benoit Poelvoorde Luise - Morgane Simon Coach - Bouli Lanners Mother - Dominique Baeyens Felix - Philippe Grand'Henry Michel - Jean-Francois Devigne Jocelyne - Lisa Lacroix
With: Philippe Nahon, Edith Le Merdy, Patrick Audin, Claude Caudron, Simone Tasiaux.
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